If Camelot Software’s DS threequel Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has anything to teach us, it’s that saving the world can be more trouble than it’s worth.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a tale we can all relate to. Set some 30 years after the events of its predecessors, it is the latest in a series of stories involving one generation of heroes from the world of Weyard having to clean up the messes of the previous generation. This is a theme visited at length throughout the Golden Sun series, and one which apparently has been the sole cause of Weyard’s woes stretching back to the beginning of time.
The Golden Sun Event rekindled the forces of alchemy in Weyard, forces that had been sealed away to prevent the stereotypical magical wars they had previously caused, but whose absence also made Weyard collapse into the abyss. Since alchemy’s presence and its absence seem to immediately bring the world to the brink of destruction, logic dictates that Weyard’s continued existence is fueled by a constant cycle of heroes traipsing across the landscape alternately awakening or sealing away the fundamental forces of magic.
This time around, a Great Previously Unknown Ancient Evil™ is released by a group of well-meaning but naïve adventurers who inadvertently fall prey to the machinations of a group of Villains in Need of Heroic Suckers®. Said adventurers promptly lose their place in Weyard’s traditional line but find themselves with a primo spot in the newly opened Express Lane of Shadows ’n’ Death.
It’s a wonder anything gets done in Weyard, but at least it makes for decent gameplay. Dark Dawn has a lot going for it. It’s what the Japanese role-playing game crowd was clamoring for years ago but nobody knew how to properly make, a game as tight and complex as a SNES-era Final Fantasy with the accessibility of a Zelda of similar vintage.
Dark Dawn layers traditional JRPG elements atop a world vastly more interactive than JRPGs of yore, which were largely characterized by sprites on top of static images. Dark Dawn forces players to think with their alchemy (alchemy here being not the noble transmutative proto-science but instead a synthesis of elemental magic and Pokémon), using their party’s talents to reshape the world to solve various puzzles and move the story along.
The game presents a world of rampant and at times chaotic change, but its protagonists, nascent alchemists of varying pedigrees, seem totally fine with it. The heroes are the scions of Golden Suns past, all raised one way or another to stand in for characters now too old to tell Dark Dawn’s story. Not only are they hand-picked successors to the whole franchise; as classical archetypes of youthful, idealistic heroism, they’re also refugees from a form of gaming storytelling that came before brooding anti-heroes who wield swords twice their size.
Of course, their optimism could well spring from the fact that they’re nearly invulnerable. Expect great things from Dark Dawn, but not a great challenge—the learning curve is somewhat flat, due in no small part to its protagonists’ status as budding alchemical god-kings. Character progression is tied into the game's alchemy system, which in turn relies on characters hunting down and binding various elemental spirits to their will.
This, combined with the fact that elemental spirits are both plentiful and easy targets, makes for a system rife with easy min-maxing, as all but the most bone-headed combinations of spirits allow characters to quickly outstrip the competition. Align synergistic spirits with like-minded alchemists, summon a few elemental gods, and prepare yourself for an early lunch, because work just ended early. (Or just spam attack until enemies are pureed. That works, too.)